A school police officer who exercises law enforcement powers cannot possess a private detective license, the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled in In re Clader, __ A.3d __ (No. 2094 EDA 2014, filed Feb. 24, 2016). In 2013, John Clader was appointed as a school police officer for the Wallenpaupack Area School District in Pike County. He possesses all the powers of a school police officer delineated in the Public School Code of 1949, including issuing summary citations and detaining individuals for misdemeanor and felony offenses until local law enforcement arrives. He also has access to restricted criminal justice databases.
In 2014, Clader petitioned the trial court for a private detective license under the Private Detective Act of 1953, 22 P.S. §§11 – 30. The court granted the license subject to restrictions prohibiting Clader from engaging in private detective business involving District personnel, parents or students. The Commonwealth appealed, and the Superior Court affirmed. The Commonwealth petitioned for reargument en banc, which was granted.
An en banc panel of the Superior Court reversed, holding that the trial court erred in granting Clader a private detective license. Writing for the 7-2 majority, President Judge Gantman explained that Pennsylvania law has no precedent for granting a private detective license, with or without restrictions, to someone with any law enforcement powers. The public policy concern, the Court observed, is that a private detective who possesses powers and authority that private citizens and other private detectives do not might abuse that power and authority to benefit his clients. The mere appearance of impropriety or the potential for a conflict of interest is sufficient to warrant the denial of a private detective license, the Court noted. Accordingly, corrections officers, probation officers, constables, police officers and mayors have all been barred from obtaining licenses. The Court held that school police officers like Clader, who are clothed with law enforcement powers not enjoyed by private citizens, should likewise be barred. Finally, the Court noted that there was no authority in the Private Detective Act for the trial court to issue a restricted license and, in any event, the restrictions imposed by the trial court on Clader’s license did not alleviate the appearance of impropriety or a conflict of interest.
Judge Ott, joined by Judge Panella, dissented. Judge Ott opined that, for purposes of a private detective license, a school police officer’s position does not equate with other law enforcement positions. Judge Ott noted that, in contrast to corrections and probation officers, constables and mayors, Clader has limited law enforcement-type powers. Judge Ott also viewed the trial court’s restrictions on Clader’s license as an added safeguard that is not improper under the Private Detective Act.